It took almost two months to the day, but I finally continued my Red Box adventure with the boys tonight. One of them, at least.
Jack had good recall of his first adventure, remembering that he’d healed one of the enemy goblins and shaken it down for information about its lair, so the paragraph book directed us straight to the goblin cave, where Jack’s dwarf, Haggooth, made a stealth roll and got the drop on the goblins huddling around the campfire. It was a sharp and savage encounter, ending with three goblins dead and one run away, and the dwarf binding up his wounds, having suffered about half his hit points lost — enough to give Jack some pause.
Jack got to use his powers, and he had some good moments with timely strikes (and a timely fumble from a goblin). It was Hack & Slash 101 but it was all new to Jack and he got deeply into the thing, picking up the narration and accepting my own little scraps of story like I was Professor Tolkien returned from the grave.
A good time! But it would have been less so if Jack and Miles were trying to figure this thing out on their own. Unlike the first two-thirds of the Red Box programmed adventure, this concluding portion felt desultory; worse still, it would have thrown the kids in the deep end without a lot of advice about how to actually run a combat on a gridded map with all the rules of D&D in effect. I gather we avoided a preliminary encounter due to Jack’s successful interrogation of the goblins in the last adventure, and maybe that encounter offers better instruction about what to do, but for players delivered here for their first map-based combat experience in D&D, it’s a pretty big leap.
If I hadn’t been there to legitimately DM this part of this “solo” adventure, it would have ended Jack’s D&D career on the spot. Fortunately I kind of know what I’m doing after four full games of my Arnath Marches campaign, and Jack’s enthusiasm was such that he wanted to keep going, even though this is the end of the pre-programmed Red Box adventure.
Happily I’d already downloaded Ghost Tower of the Witchlight Fens, a free adventure available to Red Box owners from Wizards of the Coast. This continues the “solo” adventure format of the Red Box module, and is designed to pick up right where the previous game left off. It’s a nice little value-add bonus and it let us keep rolling for one more encounter, where Jack and an NPC elf ally put the wood to some kobolds.
Whereupon we quit, because Jack was gassed. His enthusiasm deflated rapidly in that kobold encounter, which sees me running five kobold enemies plus the NPC elf against Jack with his single dwarf. As a solo adventure, of course, he’d be more engaged, running everything for himself, but there’s no way that was ever going to happen. Despite some engaging role playing between Haggooth and Sareth the elf, all those mechanics and die rolls quickly reached the MEGO (“my eyes glaze over”) point, and we called it a night with Jack standing on a pile of dead kobolds, having inherited the elf’s quest for a magic sword.
Will we play again? I honestly don’t know. I think Jack likes the game, but he likes lots of games, and even this noob-friendly take on D&D can’t really compete with World of Warcraft. The brief encounter style at least lends itself to quick pick-up games, so maybe we can keep going if we don’t push too hard in any one sitting. Jack likes sharing stories with me, but we get narrative and Dad time out of a game of Battle Cry, too, and he better understands and enjoys that game. Jack is actually invited over to a friend’s house on Saturday to play D&D, so we’ll see if he comes back from that game eager to play with me again, or if he just wants to be quit of the whole thing.
If we are to play this game regularly, I can already see I will need to redesign and vastly simplify the character sheets. The sheets included with the game really are a disaster of information design, with inessential information (like raw attribute scores), and numbers you need all the time (like your attack bonus) afforded the same visual priority. Familiar with the game as I am, I still found myself scanning all over the sheet trying to locate basic information, and Jack of course was completely lost. If the lad is to have any chance at all of learning this game, he needs a simple, prioritized character sheet built around what the character can actually do, rather than this dog’s breakfast of numbers and modifiers that feel like a bridge half-built to nowhere.